The Weight of What’s Left, by Jane Deon

Caroline took Storrow Drive, following the slow curve of the Charles, and turned onto Commonwealth Avenue. She settled for a parking space a few blocks away from her apartment. As she walked she felt the sun’s heat radiating up through the sidewalk, echoing the high temperatures of the day. An occasional laundromat or café emerged between the sets of apartments, and with their doors open the scent of pizza mixed rather unpleasantly with that of laundry detergent.

Inside her apartment the window above the kitchen sink had been left halfway open and seemed to beckon in the beginning of the gloaming. She hung the unworn jacket she’d carried around all day on the hook on the back of the bedroom door, ignoring the laundry left like an afterthought in a pile in the corner, and the unmade bed, the sheets twisted as if they’d been flapping on a clothesline in the breeze.

The intercom for the door buzzed, and Caroline glanced at the black and white face on the screen. She didn’t recognize him and she pressed the button to ask who it was.

“My name’s Arthur Sayers. I knew Ben. I was a friend of Ben’s.” He spoke quickly, the words tumbling out and landing precariously on top of one another. “Will you let me in? Please.”

“What do you want?” she asked.

She stared at the screen and saw instead a memory of herself, at a distance, reading an email from Ben, almost two years ago now. He’d written about a friend, Arthur, who shared cigarettes and Gatorade, was better than Ben at poker. They had been in Baghdad together. Had he been at the funeral? Caroline didn’t think so.

No men in dress uniforms had knocked on Caroline’s door eighteen months ago, reducing in person two years of being a part-time lover to a static recollection. Ben had been a part of the Massachusetts National Guard since she’d known him, and had been ordered to Iraq in 2004 as part of an infantry regiment. During the first weeks after he’d left, she couldn’t help but imagine him alone in the desert, though she knew he’d been sent to the city.

“I want to talk to you. Can I come up?”

Caroline drew a breath and released it, then pressed the button to buzz the door open. Arthur’s image disappeared from the screen. She walked to the kitchen, turned and paced back to the sofa. Arthur would be making his way towards the stairs at the back of the hallway, following the tired carpet, now climbing the three flights up. Perhaps he was surprised at each creak of the steps, the wooden treads just as worn as the carpeting in the hall. She and Ben had often fought intensely and made up swiftly. Once they’d argued, eating burgers in B-Good, about how she didn’t like his friends, and she’d stood up so fast her chair fell backward, the diners and staff watching as she walked out. He’d followed her out, she’d ignored him, waiting for a taxi, too tired to walk to the subway. He’d climbed into the taxi with her, a few minutes later offering an apology in the form of a kiss that made the driver either smirk or blush when he checked the rearview mirror.

She turned quickly when she heard the knock on the door. She tucked her hair behind her ears and knew she didn’t have to let him in. She shook her hands at her sides, something she used to do before a piano recital when she was a little girl to release her nerves. Arthur knocked again.

“Caroline?”

She undid the deadbolt, but left the chain in place. “You served with Ben, right?”

“Can I come in?” His voice sounded friendlier now, more round and filled out with the absence of the intercom.

She couldn’t see him clearly through the few inches of space allowed by the chain, so she closed the door and unfastened it, and then opened the door again, but only part way. Arthur was tall and broad shouldered. His eyes seemed to fade from light to dark. Chiaroscuro, Caroline thought, remembering the term from something she’d read. He had a backpack slung over one shoulder, and in his left hand he held a plastic take out bag. Caroline recognized it as being from the taqueria a few blocks away. He had the same tattoo as Ben did, on his right upper arm, black and red half concealed by the sleeve of his tee shirt. She’d traced that tattoo, Ben’s tattoo, with her index finger, thinking of permanence. She’d wanted them to be permanent. But permanent meant forever, and would forever have worked when even just a weekend could end up stretched and strained?

“Did you already eat?” he asked. He held up the bag like a peace offering. The gesture felt like one a long missed friend might make, the act of sharing a meal an attempt at the simplest form of reconnection. Except they were not friends, not even acquaintances. But Ben had trusted him.

Caroline opened the door fully and stepped to the side to let him pass. A breeze from the open window bumped the blinds against the window frame, rustled papers on the desk. The sound seemed as out of place in the quiet apartment as Arthur looked. She watched him from the doorway, trying to understand why he’d come here by judging the slant of his shoulders and the way he shifted his weight. He stood for a moment near the sofa with his back towards her, as if he were searching for an answer from the window. Abruptly he turned to face Caroline, his expression poised to say something, but either his nerve slipped away or he thought better of it, and he remained frozen, looking unsure for a moment of how to proceed.

“I have a friend who lives in Brighton, and he invited me to visit for the week. Somebody’s birthday, a friend of my friend,” he said.

He set his backpack down near the sofa with care, as though he didn’t want to disturb the arrangement of things in the room.

“I live in California now.” He put the takeout bag on the table and pulled out two Styrofoam boxes. The smell of tacos started to fill the apartment. “I’ve been meaning to come by and see you.”

“Why would you do that?”

He rested his hands on his hips, considered the door behind her, and then looked squarely in her eyes. He seemed to measure his words, the beats between them.

“There’s a story I need to tell you.” Then, “Are you hungry?”

Caroline nodded, turned to the kitchen. Opening the door of the refrigerator, she felt the cold air brush across her face and wanted it to steady her. It didn’t. She pulled two beers from the carton and closed the door. She twisted off the caps, and set one down in front of Arthur. He pulled out a chair and sat down across from her.

“What about Ben?” she asked.

He appeared almost too big for his chair, his posture too straight. Caroline thought that Arthur had had the same look when he’d walked in that she’d had when as a child she’d done something wrong, wanting and not wanting to tell someone. She watched him take two swallows of beer.

“In Baghdad, at first, nobody really knew what to expect. It started out so easy. When we were patrolling the shopkeepers offered us tea. I learned about four words of Arabic. The heat was constant, and we took off our helmets without real fear. People smiled.” He stabbed at a piece of chicken with his plastic fork. “It didn’t take long for things to change. I think everybody got scared, but nobody talked about fear. Ben told stories about home. When he told stories about you, it was like I wasn’t in Baghdad anymore. Instead of seeing shot to hell buildings I saw Boylston Street or the New York subway.”

He seemed to be waiting, expecting something in return. Caroline picked up a tortilla chip, dipped it in a small paper cup of salsa. “I first noticed Ben at a Christmas party during my senior year at BU, almost six years ago now. It was a potluck, and we commiserated over the instant mashed potatoes. He asked me what I was going to do with a degree in English, and I said I hadn’t figured it out yet. Ben had been studying history before he joined the Guard, but got impatient, quit. He was there at the party with a friend.” She sipped at her beer. “When I graduated I went to work in New York. I hated to admit it, but I found the city unwelcoming and the work unrewarding. Ben called a few months later and he asked to come for a visit. I ended up moving back to Boston.”

Arthur had been watching her closely.

“What do you want?” She didn’t mind her tone.

The legs of his chair scraped along the floor as he pushed back some from the table. The noise seemed too loud in the space that conversation had barely filled. He glanced at a picture of her and Ben taken on a weekend trip to the Cape. They stood on the edge of a pier, smiling, her hair tugged to the side by the breeze, Ben’s jacket flapping open. It had been a good day. A trace of it remained in his brown eyes. She still had that blue sweater from the picture, buried somewhere in her closet with the rest of the winter clothes.

“He was a good guy,” Arthur said. He picked up his beer and then set it down again without having taken a drink. “When Ben and I were first in Baghdad, the national museum was looted. Do you remember that?”

Caroline did remember, had shaken her head in disbelief along with the rest of the world. She nodded, dropped her eyes to the bottle in front of her. She watched the drops of condensation gathering on its side. They dripped slowly onto the table, revealing a perfect ring when she lifted the bottle to her lips. The label was getting soft, and she started to peel it off.

“I don’t know exactly how hot it was, but the heat didn’t keep the looters away. They broke down the doors and smashed the windows. Glass in the street. Everything, portable or nailed down, was fair game. They wanted to take something back, and they tore their own history to pieces in the process. It was all gone in two days, everything from the pottery to the office furniture.”

He looked at Caroline’s half eaten dinner. His own Styrofoam box was empty now. “We didn’t do anything because we didn’t have orders. We were close enough to see it all, to breathe in the dust and hear the shouts. It was impossible to tell where one word finished and another began. But the feeling was decipherable, the looks on the people’s faces. This was revenge personified. I watched one man carrying out a red rug, rolled up and slung across his shoulders. Another man pushed an office chair piled with books, papers, a desktop computer. A guy was dragging bags of who knew what, along with the head of a statue tucked under one arm.”

A silence settled between them as they both imagined the scene, Arthur’s version from memory, Caroline’s from a place between fantasy and reality. The room temperature taste of the beer coated the inside of her mouth.

“I want to give you something.” He stood slowly and retrieved his backpack, setting it on the chair. He unzipped the bag, his hand moving quickly from one side to the other. A folded piece of newspaper emerged, having been placed on the top of the bag with care. Saying nothing, he put it gently on the table and let the corners uncurl. Surrounded by the newsprint sat a delicate silver bracelet, a perfect circle with four colored stones, each one an equal distance from the next, like the points of a compass or a forgotten constellation.

“Ben found this in the street near the museum. He’d wanted to give it to you.”  He stepped back, sitting now on the sofa, his elbows on his knees, watching her with the expression of someone unsure if he’d given a gift or the opposite of one.

Caroline picked up the bracelet, feeling the outline of the cool metal on her palm, its weight hardly noticeable. She ran her finger over the smooth stones, and then looked at it as if she’d expected the color to rub off.  It slid easily onto her wrist, holding tight just above the spot where her pulse beat a steady rhythm. Beautiful, certainly, but she wanted it to feel like something else. She wanted the dirt from the street to still be there, wanted the heat that had been trapped within released. She wanted the bracelet to feel the way it had felt to Ben when he’d picked it up. She slipped it off her wrist, then slipped it back on again.

“I should have come here sooner,” Arthur said.

Caroline barely heard him. The story of the museum, the jewelry, and she was back in a museum she’d visited with Ben in what seemed like a past life, maybe in Boston, maybe in New York, she didn’t remember the city. They’d walked slowly through the galleries, their footsteps not quite echoing on the polished floor. He’d kissed the top of her head in front of a Monet. She’d tucked her arm around his waist near the Etruscan tombs.

She remembered it had been colder in the Egyptian wing, the lights lower. They’d stood together in front of the body of a woman, wrapped in muslin, kept safe behind glass. Her painted coffins were nearby, fitting one inside the other, and a burial three times over had seemed too claustrophobic to Caroline. She’d turned away, looking instead at the fragments of papyrus displayed along the walls. She’d felt Ben’s hand on her back, and he’d leaned in, explaining the gruesome picture in front of her. They believed, he’d said, that once you were dead, the gods needed to weigh your heart against a feather. The feather was the truth. Weigh your heart against a feather, weigh your heart against the truth, and if it came out in your favor, you won. Afterlife, paradise, all of it.

Arthur leaned back into the sofa cushions. His eyes moved between the floor and Caroline. Then he stood and returned to the table, sitting once again across from her. His face was blank, prepared for either approval or condemnation.

Caroline held the bracelet, turning it round and round in her hand. What object of value hasn’t been confiscated, conquered, liberated? Ben had asked her once. Every answer she had ventured had been wrong. Ben had devoured history books, and his voice came alive again in her memory. They’d been driving to visit friends, the interstate congested with weekend traffic. He drove with one hand on the steering wheel, and used the other to emphasize what he was saying. At some point, he’d said, everything of any value will have changed hands so many times it will have belonged to everyone.

She searched Arthur’s face for a moment, looking for anything more he might give. “Thank you, for this.”

He nodded.

“Are you headed back to Brighton?”

“No.” He began to zip the backpack. Caroline watched the seam close, the metal teeth fitting tightly, perfectly together. “I’m flying back to California.”

“They said on the radio this morning that it would storm later.”

“It’ll be fine.” He picked up the backpack and tucked the chair under the table. “I’ll probably be on my way to San Diego before then.”  He moved deliberately, as if performing a series of movements he’d memorized some time ago and no longer needed to think about. Perhaps that’s the way he would drive home from the airport, thought unnecessary with the window down and the breeze rushing at him. The pavement would shimmer and twist with the heat, the way it must shimmer in Iraq, then way it never quite did here. He’d be waiting for the first breath of salty air and the white noise sound of the waves to reach him.

A moment later Arthur looked as he had when he’d walked in, backpack over his shoulder, standing in the middle of the room. It took him only two steps to get to the door. He paused before reaching for the door handle, turned, and said goodbye.

She picked up the takeaway containers, taking them to the kitchen sink, thinking of the way Ben laughed when he meant it. He would always get up and start the coffee, and the sound of the coffee grinder would travel through the kitchen wall to her in the bedroom. She folded the newspaper and placed it on top of the recycling bin, remembering the way he cleared his throat and said “well” just before he was about to argue about whose turn it was to take out the garbage. She missed the way he made love and the feeling he left her with – present, wanted, prized. She slipped the bracelet on again. Ben had loved her and thought of her. Hadn’t she always known that? She felt her breath catch in her throat. She thought of her past and tried to imagine her future. But the image in her mind remained as vast and unmarked as a desert, the dunes shifting and keeping secrets.

***

Jane Deon is an MFA candidate at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Her fiction has also appeared in Long Story Short. She lives in North Miami.

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